Food Safety and Raw Milk
Raw milk is milk from cows, goats, sheep or other animals that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to a high enough temperature for a long enough time to kill illness-causing bacteria contained in milk.
What are the risks of drinking raw milk?
Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick. While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. Getting sick from raw milk can cause diarrhea, stomach cramping and vomiting. Less commonly, it can lead to kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders and even death.
Raw milk and raw milk products (such as cheeses and yogurts made with raw milk) can be contaminated with bacteria such as Brucella, Campylobacter, Listeria, Mycobacterium bovis, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Shigella, Streptococcus pyogenes and Yersinia enterocolitica.
Who's at risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk?
Any person of any age can get sick or even die if they drink raw milk that is contaminated with harmful germs. The risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk is greater for infants and young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS.
Can drinking raw milk hurt me or my family?
Yes. Raw milk and raw milk products can be contaminated with bacteria that cause serious illness, hospitalization or even death. From 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to CDC. These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. Most of the illnesses were caused by E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella or Listeria. A substantial proportion of the raw milk-associated disease burden falls on children; among the 104 outbreaks from 1998-2011 with information on the patients' ages available, 82% involved at least one person younger than 20 years old.
Because not all cases of foodborne illness are recognized and reported, the actual number of illnesses associated with raw milk likely is greater.
Aren't raw or natural foods better than processed foods?
Many people believe that foods with no or minimal processing are better for their health. However, some types of processing are needed to protect health. For example, consumers process raw meat, poultry and fish for safety by cooking. Similarly, when milk is pasteurized, it is heated just long enough to kill disease-causing germs. Most nutrients remain after milk is pasteurized. There are many local, small farms that offer pasteurized organic milk and cheese products.
Does drinking raw milk prevent or cure any diseases, such as asthma, allergies, heart disease or cancer?
No. There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria. The process of pasteurization of milk has never been found to be the cause of chronic diseases, allergies, or developmental or behavioral problems.
I know people who have been drinking raw milk for years, and they never got sick. Why is that?
The presence of germs in raw milk is unpredictable. The number of disease-causing germs in the raw milk to be too low to make a person sick for a long time, and later high enough to make the same person seriously ill. For some people, drinking contaminated raw milk just once could make them really sick. Even if you trust the farmer and your store, raw milk is never a guaranteed safe product. Drinking raw milk means taking a real risk of getting very sick.
For additional information on raw milk and food safety:
Food Safety and Raw Milk (CDC website)
The Dangers of Raw Milk (FDA website)
Myths About Raw Milk (foodsafety.gov)